Nuclear Stockpile Reliability

In “The Scientific Foundation for Assessing the Nuclear Performance of Weapons in the US Stockpile Is Eroding” (Issues, Winter 2019), John C. Hopkins and David H. Sharp postulate a weakened US deterrent posture due to the lack of nuclear testing since 1992. The article implies that a return to testing is necessary to restore a higher level of confidence to underpin the on-going modernization of the nation’s nuclear stockpile. From a purely technical perspective, nuclear testing certainly would increase our confidence, but at what price to our overall national security?

A return to nuclear testing would require, at a minimum, a series of costly nuclear tests that might result in resumed nuclear testing by other current nuclear weapons states and perhaps in the inception of nuclear testing by nonnuclear states that have nuclear aspirations. This is a risky path that should be taken only if absolutely necessary.

The US stockpile has been certified every year since 1997 through a detailed analysis carried out by the National Nuclear Security Administration nuclear weapon laboratories using the tools of the highly successful science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP), by the Department of Defense (US Strategic Command), and by independent groups advising the government. These rigorous certifications are based on weapons surveillance, nonnuclear experiments, previous nuclear tests, and computer simulations. If Hopkins and Sharp are correct in their assertion that the scientific foundation is eroding because any changes (aging, remanufacturing, etc.) in the stockpiled weapons are not “nuclear-tested, and that “we are gambling with our nation’s nuclear deterrent” by trusting the SSP as the basis for certification, then we should not ignore their warning.

Given the current state of world affairs and the 25 years since the inception of the SSP, it might be time that an independent group be appointed to evaluate in depth the level of confidence we should have in our stockpile using the SSP without nuclear testing.

Former Director (1997-2003)
Los Alamos National Laboratory

Congratulations are due to John C. Hopkins and David H. Sharp for their vitally important article, which has the potential to preserve America’s existence. The authors, who are eminent senior scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, had the education, experience, determination, and courage to pursue science and independent thought, while working within a bastion of political correctness.

The Cold War was the world’s first nuclear war. It lasted for half a century, and was fought primarily in the world of nuclear science. The United States won it without detonating a single nuke, through superiority in science, strategy, and strength.

However, when that war ended in 1991, US leaders, supported by the public, caused the nation to embark on an unannounced nuclear weapons freeze that—more than a quarter-century later—is still in effect. Every weapon in the nation’s arsenal is far beyond its design life. Not a single weapon has been tested during this period. Instead of testing, our nuclear scientists have relied on computer simulations. These computer codes have never been verified.

The authors, with decades of experience in design and testing of nuclear weapons, have produced the first scientific paper to demonstrate why America should not have confidence that our nukes will detonate when our existence depends upon them.

America must immediately resume underground nuclear testing by the Departments of Energy and Defense. We must have total confidence in our strategic nuclear deterrent. We are a quarter-century behind our adversaries in understanding the advanced nuclear sciences of weapons design and weapons effects. We are immensely vulnerable to technological surprise.

Vice Admiral, US Navy, Ret.
Former Director, Defense Nuclear Agency

Cite this Article

“Nuclear Stockpile Reliability.” Issues in Science and Technology 35, no. 3 (Spring 2019).

Vol. XXXV, No. 3, Spring 2019